First person charged under Hong Kong security law found guilty

Judges say flag with slogan ‘Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times’ was secessionist

Tong Ying-kit (24), who was found guilty of  inciting secession and terrorism. Photograph:  Isaac Lawrence/AFP via Getty Images

Tong Ying-kit (24), who was found guilty of inciting secession and terrorism. Photograph: Isaac Lawrence/AFP via Getty Images

 

A Hong Kong man has been found guilty of terrorism and inciting secession in the city’s first trial under the national security law, signalling that courts in the financial centre are prepared to take a hard line under the legislation.

Tong Ying-kit, a 24-year-old former restaurant worker, rode a motorbike bearing a black flag emblazoned with the words “Liberate Hong Kong. Revolution of Our Times” in the direction of a line of police on July 1st last year, the first day the law took effect. The phrase was a common refrain of anti-government protesters in 2019.

The case set a tough precedent for dozens of Hong Kong pro-democracy activists charged under the security law, which also criminalises activities such as subversion and collusion with foreign powers, with up to life imprisonment.

China imposed the law on Hong Kong a year ago, setting the stage for a widespread crackdown on dissent in the city. Western governments, including the US and the UK, responded by accusing Beijing of breaking promises to guarantee the territory a high degree of autonomy for 50 years after its handover from Britain to China in 1997.

The clampdown has led to a remodelling of many of Hong Kong’s institutions to draw them closer to the mainland. The city’s courts had been the final institution largely left untouched, but observers said that over-reach by the authorities was threatening its independence in the realm of criminal law.

International businesses, many of which have their regional headquarters in the city partly because of its globally recognised common law system, fear any degradation of the integrity of the courts.

‘Liberate Hong Kong’

Both prosecutors and Tong’s defence team called on academics to argue over the definition of the “Liberate Hong Kong” slogan.

Lau Chi-pang, a history professor and member of the semi-official think tank the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, testified that the rallying cry had the objective of separating Hong Kong from China.

The defence countered that the phrase was vague and “not capable of carrying any secessionist meaning”, according to the ruling.

But the judge ruled that even if the expression carried other meanings, Tong could be convicted because the prosecution needed to prove only that its use was “capable of inciting others to commit secession”.

“The focus was on whether the words . . . [were] capable of inciting others to commit the offence in question,” Esther Toh, one of the three judges overseeing the case, said in court.

“The defendant’s failure to stop at all the police checklines, eventually crashing into the police, was a deliberate challenge mounted against the police, a symbol of Hong Kong’s law and order.”

The trial was conducted without a jury – a break with tradition in Hong Kong’s common law system – and was instead heard by three judges picked to preside over security law cases.

A legal challenge to the decision to forgo a jury was dismissed by the court of appeal.

‘White terror’

Nathan Law, a Hong Kong pro-democracy activist now in the UK, said the verdict showed that authorities were using the judicial system to suppress freedom of expression. “A sense of white terror continues to linger in Hong Kong,” he said.

Police have arrested 138 people under the security law and charged 76 of them.

Tong was born in 1996 and educated in Hong Kong. He had a probationary driving licence at the time of the incident. He pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Hearings over his sentencing will begin on Thursday. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021